Now the beloved principal of the Sierra Madre School, Gayle Bluemel has been a PUSD educator for more than 30 years. For even longer, she has been in love with the theater. Fortunately for her and her students, these pursuits have dovetailed often, leading to classroom after classroom—and now a whole school—saturated with the spirit of the performing arts. Writing, directing, teaching: three of a kind. Along the way, she has managed to found a musical theater workshop and, oh yeah, play in a band. During a brief intermission from all this drama, Ms. Bluemel answered some questions for Hometown Pasadena about the path she’s walked and Pasadena’s merits as an arts town.
Your training was originally in theater. How and when did you make the transition to education? Was teaching something you had always thought about doing?
My high school drama teacher must have seen something in me, because he asked me to be student director for the annual variety show. Before that time, I had always performed in the high school shows, but had never taken on the role of director. I found that it was a perfect fit! I loved to be in charge and the other kids seemed to respond to me. Later, after I completed my BA in drama, I found that my love for both teaching and the theatre would continue to be an asset. Over the years, I have found a way to combine the arts in whatever teaching assignment I have had.
What was your path to becoming principal like? Arts faculty don’t usually seem like the types to wind up in administrative roles.
I have been an educator in PUSD since 1973, so I have had so many varied opportunities. I was a regular classroom teacher for a long time, in every grade from first through sixth. And so performing arts were always an important part of my classroom curriculum. I always found a way to conduct the chorus for every school to which I was assigned. I also was a traveling music teacher for a while, visiting a couple of schools a week, bringing vocal music instruction to elementary kids and a performing arts teacher at the middle school level. I landed at Sierra Madre School in 1990 and worked my way through, from a first grade classroom teacher, to curriculum resource teacher, to assistant principal, and now as principal. I have found administration to be a comfortable place for me, because both sides of my brain seem to work. As an artist, I am open to creative process and community, and as an educator, I see the value of balance, hard work and organization.
How did the Pasadena Musical Theatre Program come into being? Are you still involved in it?
I created the PUSD Gifted and Talented Musical Theatre Workshop in 1995 as a collaborative project for me and my son and daughter, who were preteens, at the time and I directed the Summer and Saturday program for nine years. Since that time, Ryan Scott Oliver and my daughter Emily Clark (both alumni of the program) have taken over the directorial duties, and Cynthia Abbott, performing arts teacher at Washington Middle School, has continued as musical director. I am very proud of the program, and am so proud of the students who have participated and who have maintained lifelong friendships that were nurtured through their participation over the years.
I actually caught the SMS Holiday Show, and was surprised at how contemporary many of the performances were; hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an outright shock. Are SMS performances always so forward-looking? How involved were you in the planning of the show, beyond your marvelous piano playing?
I have been so lucky to be able to surround myself with young, passionate arts educators as colleagues. At Sierra Madre School we have Tina Ogron and Kim Sibbrel, dance specialists (who also happen to teach fourth and fifth grade), as well as Amy McLean, instrumental music teacher, and my daughter Emily (performing arts specialist at the middle-school level). Each year, I have been able to give over a little more of the creative, performing-arts process over to my wonderful colleagues. They have my support in development, in rehearsals as needed, and of course, at the keyboard!
What do you think of Pasadena as a performing arts town? Do you ever make it to the Sierra Madre Playhouse?
I am thrilled to be a member of the Pasadena community as we are so fortunate to have world-class arts opportunities in our own backyard. I enjoy the museums and the Pasadena Playhouse. I am also a member of a band called the Late Bloomers (with my husband, Dan Ames, and two other great musicians, Ross Johnsen and Scott Shepherd), and we perform folk rock occasionally at the Coffee Gallery Backstage (an Altadena treasure) as well as other venues. We also get a chance to play for the city of Sierra Madre summer concert series in the park.
What’s your favorite musical?
I love anything Sondheim!!!!